Roger Greenberg, the eponymous hero of Noah Baumbach’s new film, “Greenberg,” is a direct descendant of all those solipsistic, narcissistic, inconsiderate neurotics embodied by Woody Allen and, most recently, Larry David. At 40, he is a twitching bundle of nerves, barely suppressed anger and tightly held grudges going back to his college days. And he is unmistakably Jewish, although, as he dryly notes, “my mother is a Protestant, so I don’t even count.”
Where “Greenberg” significantly parts company with the works of Allen and David, tellingly, is in the fact that Baumbach not only co-wrote the screenplay with his wife (Jennifer Jason Leigh, who is also in the cast), but also, with Leigh, cast Ben Stiller to play the title role, thereby giving himself some critical distance from the character. The result is that Baumbach and Leigh resist the urge so central to many other examples of this kind of comedy of anti-social behavior — to wink at the audience, to let us feel we’re in on the joke and that the adolescent raging id before us is just a funny version of what we’d be if we all had no superegos.
“Greenberg” is character-driven comedy with a dark, edgy undertone that starts with the strangely haunted look in Stiller’s eyes. This may be the first time he has ever played a character rather than a caricature, and dealt in emotions rather than attitudes, and the change is refreshing. (I suspect that the major reason for the change is that, as he observes in the film’s press notes, this is one of the rare occasions when he was not called upon to improvise, but to stick to a detailed and closely observed script.)
Roger is a feckless 40-year-old, once a promising rock musician, now a Brooklyn-based carpenter recovering from an apparent nervous breakdown. When his well-to-do brother takes his wife and children to Vietnam for a vacation, Roger comes back to L.A., where they grew up, to house- and dog-sit. A non-driver, he is left at the transportational mercies of Florence (Greta Gerwig), his brother’s 25-year-old personal assistant, and his last friend, former bandmate Ivan (Rhys Ifans). He tries to reconnect with other old friends, but Roger hasn’t changed while all the people who knew him grew up and have lives.
Baumbach opens the film, contrary to the expectations the title might breed, from Florence’s point of view. We see her interact warmly with Mahler, the family’s German shepherd, and the children. She projects the energetic competence of a young woman just finding her way into the adult world and, although we learn that she is coming off “a long-term relationship,” she is an engaging mixture of coltish awkwardness and earnest concern. In short, the perfect target for a misguided missile like Roger. Their on-and-off relationship is the motor that drives the film, to the extent that it has anything you could call a plot. And it is Mahler’s apparent illness that keeps bringing them back together despite passive-aggressive Roger’s excruciating inability to express his desires — forget commitment, this guy can barely handle a one-night stand.
In a sense, the film is structured around a series of parties. Roger lets Ivan drag him to another band mate’s birthday, where there are as many children as grown-ups (although Roger makes the shrewd observation that “the men in L.A. dress like children and the children dress like superheroes”). Midway through the film, Roger throws himself an impromptu birthday party, which becomes an opportunity for him to act out in ways that inflict pain on his friends again. Finally, his college-age niece throws a huge booze-and-drug fueled bash that initially threatens to turn into the typical absent-parents-means-total-abandon cliché, but Baumbach intends something darker, quieter, sadder and more disturbing, as Roger begins to see himself through the eyes of these squirts half his age.
In the three parties, Baumbach crafts a progression, from Roger’s amused, slightly superior sense of discomfort surrounded by children (and childish adults), through his snarkiness at his own birthday gathering, attended by near-strangers, to his slow meltdown in the last party, a strangely subdued bacchanalia that includes one deeply unnerving image of Ben Stiller enveloped in flickering shadows, his face a grim, almost unreadable mask.
“Greenberg” opens with a smog-shrouded cityscape, the camera panning across Los Angeles until it comes to rest on a hillside trail, where Florence is walking Mahler. Throughout the film, we almost never see the city or Roger in clear, sharp sunlight. Fittingly in the pivotal moment in the film, when he achieves some minimal state of clarity about his life, Baumbach shows us Roger in close-up, in what seems almost preternaturally sharp focus. He isn’t going to change much, but he may just be capable of salvation.
“Greenberg,” directed by Noah Baumbach, is playing at the AMC Lincoln Square (68th Street and Broadway) and the City Cinemas Angelika Film Center (Mercer and Houston streets).
Signup for our weekly email newsletter here.